2nd Sunday of Lent
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[i] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[j] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
May the spoken/written word lead us closer to the living word, Jesus Christ. Amen
When I sat to compose this sermon I wondered how many of those who heard/read last week’s reflection had been blessed by realising that they were God’s beloved son/daughter and that he was well pleased with them. My piece of string has had quite an airing this week. It is comforting to hear the good news of the gospel and many of the accounts bolster our faith, but of course there are the hard parts as well, and we certainly have one of those this morning!
In order to really get a hold of what’s going on in this passage we need to go back a few verses to set the passage in context and we have to keep the greater story in mind. For generations, the Jewish people had been waiting for the long promised Messiah, the one who would certainly liberate them from the oppression of the Romans. They had waited for the Messiah who would retake the Promised Land for the Jewish people, it was just a matter of when God would make his move. Then, along comes Jesus. Mark recounts Jesus feeding of the 4,000, walking on water, healing the sick and restoring the sight to the blind. Now Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, a village about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee a sort of ‘retirement village’ for Roman officials: the Bournemouth of the Roman Empire. Since the time of Alexandra the Great, it had been a capital of the cults: there were temples and idols built into the hills. As the disciples walked with Jesus through the village, they would have looked around them at all the temples and the idols and the images of the gods and it was at that moment that Jesus chose to ask them a simple question: In the midst of all the gods of the known world – who do you say that I am? Peter turns to Jesus and says, “You are the Christ”.
Perhaps Peter had known that truth for quite some time. Perhaps it was a realisation that came upon him as they walked past the temples and the idols in the village. But either way, this was a moment of realisation and declaration about the nature of Jesus Christ whom they were following. So we come to our text for today.
The expression ‘The Elephant in the Room’ has become something of a common cliché but there is a profound wisdom to be found in this simple expression. The Elephant in the Room’ addresses our human tendency to avoid the obvious. The plain fact is that there are some realities that are so painful and difficult that we go to great lengths to deny their importance.
One thing that we can always rely on is Jesus’ ability to name the Elephant in the Room. Last week in our Gospel Jesus confronted the Devil in the wilderness. Life has moved on and Jesus is no longer in the wilderness, but he is being tempted nonetheless. This time by one of his own disciples – Peter. He is the tempter, encouraging Jesus to take the easy way.
So Jesus decided it was time to explain what it would mean for him to challenge the great powers of their time, the religious establishment and the Roman authority. Jesus spoke to his disciples of confrontation, resistance, and his suffering and death. This was not what Peter and the disciples wanted to hear. When Peter heard Jesus’ prediction of what would occur in the future, his response was immediate: No, Jesus. No suffering and death. What are you thinking? You are the Messiah ~ the promised deliverer of God’s people, Israel!
Sometimes we try to avoid the truth regardless of how difficult it is to do this. The elephant can be large and grey and fill the room, but if we do not want to see it, we will not. So it was with the disciples. They liked the crowds, the liked the healings, they liked the warm welcomes, and the traveling the excitement of it all. They liked the words of liberation and hope and they had no desire to hear Jesus predictions of conflict, humiliation, and death.
We have things we like to hear and things we do not. Lent is a time when we are challenged to face what it means to be a disciple, to follow Jesus in the world today. For this reason, the Lenten season encourages us to face truths that we would prefer to avoid. We rightly shudder when we hear Jesus address those harsh words to Peter: Get behind me, Satan! Jesus wants his followers to understand the hard truth. He wants to prepare them for the future. Peter’s bravado is clearly not helpful. Peter is indignant about Jesus reply, and we read that he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Jesus. I can imagine there was quite a heated exchange between Peter and Jesus; full of rebuke and warning on both sides.
I am sure we can fully understand the human emotions involved here, Peter had spent many months with Jesus, watching him heal the sick and cleanse the lepers and cure the blind and raise the dead and challenge the religious authorities and now he was being confronted with a future filled with weakness and vulnerability, and Peter didn’t want that, and he didn’t want his friend to die.
There is a strange poem by Stewart Henderson called ‘Splintered Messiah’:
I don’t want a splintered Messiah
In a sweat stained greasy grey robe
I want a new one
I couldn’t take this one to parties
People would say ‘Who’s your friend?’
I’d give an embarrassed giggle and change the subject.
If I took him home
I’d have to bandage his hands
The neighbours would think he’s a football hooligan
I don’t want his cross in the hall
It doesn’t go with the wallpaper
I don’t want him standing there
Like a sad ballet dancer with holes in his tights
I want a different Messiah
Streamlined and inoffensive
I want one from a catalogue
Who’s as quiet as a monastery
I want a package tour Messiah
Not one who takes me to Golgotha
I want a King of Kings
With waves in his hair
I don’t want the true Christ
I want a false one.
Peter didn’t want a Splintered Messiah. He wanted a strong powerful one, a leader from the line of David to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel politically.
With hindsight, it is easy to see that Peter had got it all wrong, but the reality is, we can also be uncomfortable with a Splintered Messiah. We want a strong God when we are hurt, when we suffer loss, when we have to put up with thoughtless words from others, when we are sick. We want a strong God who will heal us or justify us or turn our darkness into light. We want a strong God. But the problem is that we are human and see strength from a very human perspective, not from a divine perspective. God’s strength is measured in vulnerability, in sacrifice, and that was the example Jesus, the ‘Splintered Messiah’ was about to show his disciples, and the crunch for us is that is how he wants us to live our lives as well.
Verse 34: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
There is a danger that we trivialise that call of Jesus on our lives. How often do we manage to turn such a powerful call on our lives into something tame and mediocre? I am sure we have all heard someone say “We’ve all got a cross to bear” it can trip off the tongue without a thought, but it is an incredible call on our lives from the man who was walking towards Jerusalem to be tortured and hung on a cross to die. Our Splintered Messiah.
I wonder how Peter felt at this point. Maybe let down, scared, embarrassed angry? Up until then, there had been excitement in following Jesus: the crowds flocked to them, the miracles happened all the time, the teaching was amazing, and perhaps Peter enjoyed bathing in the reflected glory of Jesus. But suddenly the glamour is gone and Peter is left with the cold, stark reality of the pain of discipleship and the agony of realising that if he truly wants to follow Jesus, he can’t have it all on his own terms.
Neither can we. There is a cost to discipleship. During Lent we come face to face with the fact that it if we follow a Splintered Messiah the discipleship will need to be Splintered as well. If you carry rough week on your shoulders what do you get – splinters.
We can’t have God on our terms, an hour in church once a week will not lead us into a deep relationship with God. There is a painful truth in this passage, that if we truly want to follow in the way of Christ, then our individual lives and our corporate church life will become governed by the knowledge that, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
This is about our life, our identity. Where do we find our identity, as individuals and as a church? If we find our identity in our comfort zones just turning up for an hour a week, as longs as nothing else takes our fancy. Just putting our loose change in the collection without asking God how much we should give, or not making any firm commitment to the gospel or to the wider church community, then we will lose our identity, because it is transient. But if we find our identity, our life, solely in Jesus and in the gospel, we will save our life because Jesus and the gospel are eternal.
The truth is not always easy to hear or to follow. I must desire less of me and more of God: as I die, so he can live.
That is challenge of this passage and that is the challenge of Lent. Jesus was calling Peter to reflect on whether he wanted his own idea of Christ or a Splintered Messiah? We need to think about what it means for us to die to self? What does it mean for us to lay down our comfortable images of Christ? Our lives are Splintered. This Church is called to be Splintered because carrying the cross of self-sacrifice scars our bodies, as we die to our egos and live to Christ it will hurt because the splinters dig deep.
I wonder if we can be courageous enough this Lent to embrace the words of Jesus this morning, to take up our cross and follow him our Splintered Messiah.